Sunday, July 17, 2016

The End of An Era? Some Perspective

http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1555Ok, that was a bit of a melodramatic title, but on Saturday I had my birthday (and according to societal norms, it was a big one), so I am going to proceed to making tenuous links between aging and decision-making! For starters, the longer I work on environmental issues the more relevant subjects like psychology and economics seem to become (which is perhaps very telling for someone who has mostly identified as an ecologist). I'm definitely not alone in this, if the surge in scholarship around behaviour change and environmental problems is any indication. Climate change policy has become a textbook example of the shift in focus, from providing people (in this case decision/policy makers) with loads of information to considering how to influence the context and underlying drivers.  Basically, we're finally coming to the realization that humans are not wholly rational actors - as in we don't always choose the option that yields the greatest "benefit" - and that we don't do particularly well making decisions solely on an extensive array of cold, hard 'facts'.

But let's get back to this whole aging phenomenon. I think we approach birthdays and getting older in a similar manner. A couple of years ago now, I remember reading a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) about big life decisions made at the end of decades. If you take a look at the studies themselves, they focus on the occurrence of extramarital affairs, suicides, and first-time marathon finishers by age (which to be fair are relevant to only a subset of the population). 'Participation' in those activities was highest among subjects in their ultimate year of a decade (e.g. 29...). The popular media interpreted the findings as demonstrating that the '9's are spent in self-reflection and in search of meaning (but the Jury's still out...), and when we reach these transitional years we become “particularly preoccupied with aging and meaningfulness, which is linked to a rise in behaviors that suggest a search for or crisis of meaning.” In reflection, this is very odd. It's not as though overnight the knowledge, skills, etc. that you've built up reset, or suddenly certain 'milestones' come due. Why then do perfectly reasonable and practical individuals go bonkers over hitting thirty?

So, having just spent the last year fretting* about the end of a decade, and making moderately 'big life decisions', albeit different from those in the study (e.g. starting a PhD, moving to Australia, adopting a cat...), I thought it would be interesting to take a step back and assess the situation 'rationally'. Much of the to-do about getting older stems from unmet expectations of accomplishment. In my case, we could look at income as a measure of success (figure a), but perhaps my life choices aren't especially optimized for monetary gain - most of the past decades' income consumed by educational instutitions or lenders.  If tertiary education qualifications are something we care about, then I'm doing a bit better (figure b). Now considering I suffer a bit from wanderlust and place a high value on exposure to different places and cultures, perhaps the map (figure c) of countries visited in the past decade is a better tool to assess success ... by my metrics, at least. And while some things haven't changed significantly in ten years (still a student, still working on environmental problems, still haven't lived in the same house for more than a year...), the fear of having squandering my twenties is obviously unsubstantiated!
c) Countries "added" in the last ten years (ignore the comma in the legend...)

Even when presented with this evidence, I can't help but feel some 'crisis of meaning' insinuated in the psychology studies. Returning to the behavioural economics reference earlier, the researchers behind these studies suggested future work could explore why some people respond to periods of pre-birthday reflection in the ways they do. The implications of examining underlying drivers of these decisions is that they could suggest means of direct that motivation for positive outcomes. You can imagine that this has also struck a chord with folks interested in environmental policy and sustainable behaviours, pinpointing social norms and other non-economic forces.

So there you go - tenuous connections between birthdays and big decisions. Hopefully, the end of my fourth decade of life won't result in any destructive life decisions. Here's to a new decade, and the one just put to bed.
Some things really don't change... NYC July 2006

A Decade of Birthday Posts (sans 2015):


* This seemed like a big birthday, but moreso because I still feel comfortably in the mentality of an early/mid 20-year-old...perhaps due to the perpetual state of student-hood. 
** Pre-2010 blog posts are also pre-My Munchable Musings. I apologise in advance for the writing not quite meeting current quality control standards...see, that's something else that has improved in a decade! 

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